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February 15: Richard Feynman

February 15, 2012

Richard Feynman, who shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1965 and was one of the world's great popularizers of science, died on this date in 1988. Born in Far Rockaway, New York, he did not speak until he was three but proved to be a math prodigy. He attended MIT as an undergraduate and Princeton for graduate studies, where his first seminar was attended by Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, and John von Neumann. "Feynman seemed to possess a frightening ease with the substance behind the equations," writes James Gleick, his biographer, "like Albert Einstein at the same age, like the Soviet physicist Lev Landau — but few others." Feynman worked on the Manhattan Project and then became an influential teacher at Cornell and Caltech, with many of his lectures collected into books, including The Feynman Lectures on Physics, of which more than 3 million copies have been sold in various languages. His many other books include Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think? A lifelong atheist, Feynman preferred not to identity as Jewish, even ethnically: "To select for approbation the peculiar elements that come from some supposedly Jewish heredity is to open the door to all kinds of nonsense on racial theory," he wrote in declining to be included in a book on Jewish Nobel laureates. (He probably would not have approved of his inclusion in JEWDAYO, either.)

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself -- and you are the easiest person to fool." —Richard Feynman